An examination of Russia’s tactics and narratives during the recent NATO summit in Vilnius on July 11-12 reveals their strategies for influencing domestic and international audiences throughout their operations. This analysis highlights the communication challenges faced by Ukraine and emphasizes the need for comprehensive efforts to effectively counter Russian influence.
Targeting Different Audiences: Official Narratives vs. Personalized Claims
In the context of the Vilnius NATO summit, Russia adopts two main tracks for its coverage – the first takes a more official stance, while the second implies rather personalized narratives. While both tracks ultimately lead to similar conclusions, they are crafted differently to appeal to their specific audiences.
Official positions have been articulated predominantly by the official institutions of the Kremlin, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and its representatives, Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, and Maria Zakharova, the Head of the Press Department of the Ministry. The position was also supplemented with citations from foreign government officials to shape the full picture. After this, the narratives were adapted to the tailored audience (domestic and international) by the Russian state media outlets and top propagandists, both officials and journalists.
Personalized messages have been conveyed through specific individuals, mostly journalists (Olga Skabeyeva, Margarita Simonyan, and Vladimir Soloviov). These officials similarly transmit personalized narratives but with personal judgments, taking on a more aggressive rhetoric compared to their speeches for the official track.
While these individuals echo Russia’s core narratives, they place emphasis on different perspectives and aspects of the NATO summit. The track is also well supplemented with content from popular thematic social media channels and Russian war correspondents that is often implemented (by reposting) into the channel feed of top propagandists (e.g., SolovievLive). Such personalized narratives, which aim to evoke strong emotions, are mostly aimed at targeting Russian domestic audiences as well as Ukrainian ones.
Overall, the Kremlin employs various tactics to disseminate its narratives and shape discourse, depending on the audiences it aims to target. The choice of channels of communication and language to evoke specific emotional responses (e.g., fear, frustration, and distrust) also influences the messaging style.
A Matrix of Audiences and Messages
The official position primarily involves Russian state authorities and government ministries’ statements as well as coverage of state media outlets (both domestic and international), focusing predominantly on the message that Ukraine has not been invited to join NATO.
For the international audience, Russia tries to shape an intended framework of narratives, emphasizing the above-mentioned message and strengthening it with the immoral image of the West. Thus, through Russia Today, the Russian state-controlled international news television network, the Kremlin’s propaganda chooses to surround the NATO summit with the following topics:
Russia’s propaganda also proposes its beneficial explanations for “the main result of the summit”—the refusal to invite Ukraine to join NATO. For example, Zakharova suggested that Poland’s ‘interests’ in the western territories of Ukraine serve as one of the main reasons NATO allies refrained from handing Ukraine its NATO membership invitation. Zakharova claims, – “The western part of Ukraine, from Poland’s perspective, should belong to Poland. And this topic is only beginning to emerge for Poland as a NATO member. Therefore, with undefined borders in this sense, Ukraine is not needed in NATO. The desire of Polish politicians to seize the western part of Ukraine is evident.”
Another explanation for NATO’s postponement of accepting Ukraine into the alliance is America’s desire to omit the “real” war with Russia. Thus, the track for the international audience is infused with discourses of fear, suggesting that the West is already on the brink of war due to its decisions.
“Medvedev [Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation] said that Russia and NATO are “on the brink of war.”
Medvedev says Russia and NATO are on the brink of war, or rather, beyond the brink”
Notably, both decisions (to accept or not to accept Ukraine into NATO) are incorrect and dangerous, according to Russia. To accept Ukraine means “a firm response” from the Kremlin (additionally to dragging the West into the war):
“He [Dmitry Peskov, Press Secretary of the President of the Russian Federation] emphasized that Ukraine, as a member of the alliance, will become a threat to Russia, which will require a clear and firm response.”
The decision not to accept Ukraine and provide another military package instead will result in a world war anyway, according to Dmitry Medvedev:
“Increase military aid to the Kyiv regime. By everything possible: rockets, cluster charges, airplanes. The completely insane West could not come up with anything else. Predictability at the highest level, to the point of idiocy. In fact, it is a dead end. The Third World War is nigh.”
The official track also serves to explain the affairs, emphasizing Ukraine’s perceived failed ambitions and humiliation as a nation to its domestic audience.
““It was impossible.” In Ukraine, they recognized the unpleasant truth about NATO
Ex-head of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, Zahorodniuk: NATO is not ready to accept the country into its ranks.”
“Kosachev [Konstantin Kosachev, Senator of the Russian Federation] said that Ukraine was shown its real place at the NATO summit
Kosachev: NATO indicated to Ukraine that it should serve as consumables for the West.”
“Gavrilov [Konstantin Gavrilov, Russian diplomat]: Zelensky actually admitted at the summit that he serves NATO
Gavrilov: Zelensky actually admitted at the NATO summit that he serves the alliance’s interests.”
Additionally, the Kremlin fills the media space with topics that highlight Russia’s active involvement in geopolitical affairs, aiming to contrast itself as a moral and fair actor against an immoral West that is “more interested in killing than protecting”, as summarized by Zakharova.
The immoral aspect of Western (especially the US’s) approaches to Russia was forced by focusing on the West’s subjectivity in relations with other nations (according to Russia):
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs named the consequences for Europe after the NATO summit in Vilnius
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Hrushko: “The outcome of the NATO summit in Vilnius was the vassalization of Europe.”
Here is how, for example, Lavrov explained Finland’s and Sweden’s joining the NATO alliance:
“This status [of neutrality] provided them with a lot for ten years. They refused special trade relations with the Russian Federation. The speed of NATO’s entry forces us to look for the reason in the subordinate position in which Finland and Sweden were placed by the United States.”
The personalized track primarily revolves around a negative portrayal of Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, depicting him as a weak politician and a betrayed leader who is leading Ukraine towards complete destruction.
This discourse is predominantly disseminated by specific individuals such as Maria Zakharova and Margarita Simonyan, as well as media outlets for internal audiences in both Russia and Ukraine.
Unlike the former track, which predominantly aims to shape the discourse from the Russian perspective, the personalized narrative actively seeks to exert real influence on public opinion within Russia and Ukraine. This is achieved with the intensive use of strongly emotional, even brutal, language and humor.
The Russian informational operation targeted the Ukrainian audience, filling the public information space with a discourse of betrayal and failure during the NATO summit.
Messages portraying Zelensky as a dependent figure controlled by Western allies who intentionally betrays his country were disseminated through Kremlin-curated Ukrainian social media channels.
For the domestic audience, Russia actively crafts and transmits memes on Zelenskyy’s “loneliness” as a betrayal by partners, making allegories to the leaders with terroristic regimes “betrayed” by the USA, emphasizing the political weakness of the Ukrainian leader and the immorality of its partners, and targeting the Russian audience (through popular political talk shows such as 60 Minutes and social media).
Notable is that the satiric video on a renewed image of Zelenskyy as a junky and deceived by the Western allies first appeared on the social media channel of Margarita Simonian, not the state entities. However, for the domestic audience, it still appears as an official and thus “legitimized” position due to the actors (Russian elites and officials) transmitting the messages. We have already analyzed this video and its role on the first day of the summit in our previous material.
Similarly, the content aimed at shaping public opinion regarding the NATO summit was primarily spread through the social media account of Maria Zakharova and further amplified by state media programs. Zakharova characterized Zelensky as a blackmailer who mocked and ridiculed the British Defense Minister. Additionally, another prominent propagandist, Vladimir Soloviev, labeled the summit “flawed” on his social media account.
While personalized evaluations of Zelensky (such as portraying him as a junky) are primarily conveyed through channels targeting the domestic audience, the Ukrainian President’s statement on his way to Vilnius inadvertently provided an opportunity for Russian voices to align it with the official track as well. This poses a significant risk as it allows Russian propaganda to undermine the trust of the international audience and deepen communication challenges for the Ukrainian side, potentially hindering their ability to effectively convey their perspectives and garner support on the global stage.
Mirror Projection of the Opponent
Mirror projection as a psychological strategy is actively exploited by Russian propaganda in implementing informational operations over competitors. The tactic presupposes the projection of its own characteristics onto the opponent. Thus, the opponents are the contradicting entities that are extremely opposites of each other, which aids in altering public opinion over these entities.
In the context of the NATO summit, Russia portrays Ukraine and Zelenskyy as the extreme of “incorrectness” and “danger” contrasting them with Russia and its government as “correct” in their decisions and “safe” to the people. Thus, for example, Russian propaganda depicts the “Kyiv regime” as failed (“country 404” as formulated by Dmitry Medvedev) because of making the wrong choices (this can be tracked in the summary of the summit by Maria Zakharova) and authoritarians as the opposite of a more democratic Russia that cares about international law, human rights, and respects the “multipolarity of the world” (as already mentioned, the Kremlin has been actively promoting these narratives these days).
NATO allies in Ukraine are labeled “immoral”. As summarized by Zakharova, NATO showed itself as two-faced and deceitful in its values when talking about the summit results for Ukraine. At the same time, on the official track, when summarizing the summit, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia stated, “The order of the Western world arbitrarily assigned the prerogative to violate international law.”
The mirroring technique used in Russian propaganda results in absurdity, as it involves repeating the same formulations and allusions that were initially crafted by their opponents to describe Russia. For instance, a popular Russian social media platform mocks Zelenskyy’s quote on the summit, “We want to be equal with everyone, and we will fight for it,” by making an allusion to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” This is ironic considering the canonical comparison of the Russian state with the totalitarian regime depicted in Orwell’s “1984.” Similarly, Dmitry Medvedev characterizes President Joe Biden of the United States as an “obsessed with unhealthy fantasies, dying grandfather” who has “simply decided to leave gracefully”—a description that echoes Putin’s own ambitions to initiate a full-scale war.
The Russian tactic of mirroring opponents, such as Ukraine and NATO allies, can have detrimental effects on their narratives and public images. In the absence of effective strategic communication from the Ukrainian and international sides, this mirroring strategy can distort their messages, leading to the potential erosion of Ukraine’s credibility and confusion among its domestic audience and international stakeholders.
Stages of a Psychological Informational Operation
The Kremlin’s informational operation can be divided into multiple stages, allowing for the identification and tracking of specific patterns and algorithms within each of them. This enables the prediction and counteraction of their psychological operations for the strategic communication of Ukraine as well as its Western partners.
Stage 1. Preparation: Setting the Stage
Russia employs a well-crafted strategy in advance of significant events like the NATO summit. In the lead-up to the summit, the Kremlin strategically amplifies the narrative that President Volodymyr Zelensky employs manipulative tactics to influence the decisions of Western partners.
When crafting messages on the negative portrayal of the Ukrainian leader, Russian propaganda rhetoric relies on extreme coverage, deliberately provoking intense emotions. For instance, under the headline “New Kyiv-style blackmail”, Russian tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda writes the following: “But Kyiv wanted more than that [Declaration of Security Guarantees for Ukraine]. The Ukrainian authorities made no secret of their hope to receive a full invitation to join the alliance in Vilnius. Now, realizing that NATO’s doors will remain closed even after July 12, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team has resorted to their usual tactic—political blackmail.”
Russian propaganda has fervently pushed the narrative that Ukraine’s decision to participate in the summit amounts to “political blackmail” orchestrated by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was nevertheless pressured to participate in the summit by American President Joe Biden. This portrayal not only casts a negative light on the Ukrainian President but, more significantly, attempts to undermine his credibility and portray him as a feeble and unscrupulous participant in international politics who lacks genuine power and resorts to manipulation instead.
In reality, Ukrainian officials maintain a hopeful but cautious stance regarding the invitation and remain open to the possibilities of Ukraine’s NATO membership. In an evening video statement on July 10th, President Zelensky emphasized, “It is obvious [for the NATO member states] that Ukraine deserves to be in the Alliance. Not now, as there is a war, but we need a clear signal. And the signal is needed right now.“
Stage 2. Communicating the Ongoing Event: Presenting Russia’s intended lens
During the initial stages of the NATO Summit, Russian propaganda continued its narrative shaping by setting the tone for the event and presenting its own perspective to the target audience at the very beginning. This propaganda aims to influence the discourse surrounding the summit before any official outcomes are announced.
Russia’s intended lens was well articulated by Zakharova:
“A rare case: the summit began, having already failed. Washington’s decision on cluster munitions, the public humiliation of Ukraine, and the absence of any coherent concept of what is happening, which shocked even the most experienced US satellites [a state under foreign influence], are at the summit in Vilnius. It’s only going to get worse.”
The Head of the Press Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers a frame of the key narratives that will be supported during the active phase of the informational operation for the target audiences.
The narratives are embodied in Russia’s “iconic” propagandistic language: – personalized insults, mocking, and bold rhetoric. Thus, the key actors of the summit in Vilnius, such as Ukrainian and international officials, are referred to as “dummy” (for Dmytro Kuleba, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, by Maria Zakharova), “Ursula von der “Pfizer” Leyen” (for President of the European Commission by Zakharova), “Country 404” (for Ukraine by Dmitry Medvedev), etc.
Even though the highly emotionally negative and sarcastic rhetoric is tailored more for the Russian domestic audience, the same wording and emotional embodiment of the narratives are transmitted to the Ukrainian audience to shape their attitude toward the government and the West. “Digital Army of Russia” (the channel that provides narratives and daily tasks to transmit to the Ukrainian info space) described the summit in the following manner:
“The second day of the circus tour in Vilnius at the NATO summit began with a statement by the main clown.
We understand it all. Ammunition, security, etc.
But when hostilities are going on in the country and people are dying, and the “commander-in-chief” and the defense ministry are putting on their show for the whole world with an outstretched hand, it’s really embarrassing to watch.
The Titanic movie has nothing on it.”
Another tactic employed by the Kremlin is to redirect attention by introducing an alternative narrative that is artificially portrayed as significant. In the context of the NATO summit, this tactic was evident through the focus on the ratification of Sweden’s accession to NATO by Turkey. The Kremlin strategically exploited the image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, framing it as a potential betrayal of Russia, in order to make it appear more important to the Russian domestic audience and thus minimize the importance of the summit in Vilnius.
Below are some examples of how this issue was presented to the Russian audience during the NATO summit.
“The media reported what Turkey will get in exchange for the approval of Sweden’s membership in NATO
Haberler.com: Sweden will support Turkey’s entry into the EU in exchange for approval of NATO membership”
“Statements by Dmitry Peskov: The Kremlin was sympathetic to Erdoğan’s decision to agree to Sweden joining NATO. Turkey is a member of the alliance, and has obligations to the organization. This was never a secret for Moscow.”
Simultaneously, this stage is characterized by the active implementation of the above-mentioned tactics. For the international audience, this is intimidation with the potential consequences of NATO’s decisions at the summit. For the domestic and Ukrainian audience, the Kremlin capitalizes on the previously exaggerated expectations.
Top propagandists present the fact that Ukraine will not be invited to join NATO as if it were a hidden and undisclosed truth, despite the knowledge of officials. This manipulation poses a danger to audiences isolated from Ukrainian’s official statements, such as followers of pro-Russian channels in Ukraine, who may not have been made aware of the prior clarity surrounding this issue (which was conveniently omitted by Russian media).
Furthermore, the opposition between “betrayal” and “victory” is utilized to further polarize the Ukrainian audience, promoting a thinking pattern that revolves around absolute extremes when evaluating the situation. It is important to note that this heavily exploited opposition seeks to identify villains or heroes within society itself rather than attributing external factors.
This tactic of polarization is predominantly deployed later on for the Ukrainian domestic audience, deepening divisions and shaping a narrative that fosters internal tensions. The betrayal-victory opposition was actively exploited by the Russian channels in Ukraine to shape public opinion in Ukrainian society:
“Countermeasures were rushed to the failure of the NATO case.
Now that it has been revealed that Bankova knew that no one in NATO would accept them, the question is, why did they send out all the other messages and create a false illusion in order to deceive the people?
They decided to soften the blow in this way.”
The victory pole, however, is depicted as “betrayal” as well:
Stage 3: Summing Up: The Final Framing of the Event
The NATO summit in Vilnius was finally labeled a “failed summit” by Russia’s propaganda. This claim was introduced early on and reinforced (“examples” and “facts”) throughout the event. However, it is important to note that the perception of this “failure” varies depending on the specific target audience that the Kremlin is addressing.
In Russia’s propaganda, the Western allies are portrayed as lacking unity and coordination and making immoral decisions that disregard international law. Additionally, it suggests that the USA is fearful of a war with Russia, leading to the exclusion of Ukraine’s acceptance into NATO. These narratives pose a risk as they distort the true events and intentions of the summit, potentially influencing the international audience’s perception and understanding of the situation. The narratives may confuse the audience and undermine trust in the European leaders, especially for those who are natural in their position or do not follow the West’s official perspective.
For the domestic and Ukrainian audiences, the conclusions are more emotionally triggering and are mainly based on feelings of humiliation, betrayal, and frustration. The Ukrainian people are humiliated and fooled by the West, which is also the result of multiple wrong decisions by President Zelenskyy. Additionally, Ukraine is not only deceived and controlled by the NATO allies but also by the Ukrainian officials, who play their own game, which makes Ukrainians face a no-win situation.
As a result, if there is a weak counteraction against these narratives, it can potentially amplify distorted perceptions and contribute to the erosion of trust among both international and Ukrainian audiences.
To effectively counter Russian disinformation, the following recommendations should be taken into account based on the analyzed tactics used by the Kremlin:
1. Objectives and expectations of the public have to be clearly articulated and shaped within Ukraine’s strategic communication, while avoiding exaggerated statements and highly positive language before they have a confirmed basis.
2. Prior to, during, and after the critical events, consistent and coherent messaging must be provided by the official institutions. The narratives and their rhetoric must correspond to the already-formed expectations of Ukraine’s strategic communication.
3. Emphasis should be placed on the long-term goals of speeches and statements by the officials, rather than on immediate victories before they occur.
4. The official narratives need to be widely disseminated in the Ukrainian and international infospace, tailored to the interests of each audience.
5. Ukraine’s perspective has to be pushed by the active engagement of Ukrainian officials and public figures in the international infospace while considering the communication risks provided by Russia’s propaganda.